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Ask Rufus: Baskets hold story of early Choctaws

 

A Choctaw woman carries a “pack basket” in this 1909 photo published by the Smithsonian Institution’s Bureau of American Ethnology.

A Choctaw woman carries a “pack basket” in this 1909 photo published by the Smithsonian Institution’s Bureau of American Ethnology. Photo by: Courtesy photo

 

A late 1800s or early 1900s Choctaw basket, made for heavy use, was found in the attic of a Victorian house in Columbus.

 

Rufus Ward

 

Most people think the Choctaws were, as a people, gone from Lowndes County after the Indian treaties of the 1820s and 1830s. That is not the case, and the long survival of Choctaw baskets in the area tells the story. 

 

The Choctaw made baskets from woven, split cane, and the quality of their baskets is still recognized by collectors across the country.  

 

In a 1968 book, "Pattern in the Material Folk Culture of the Eastern United States," published by the University of Pennsylvania Press, author Henry Glassie tells of Choctaw baskets. They are the only baskets illustrated in the book. He describes them as "split cane baskets (that) follow the precontact (prehistoric) patterns of Indians of the Southeast." 

 

Several of the early European explorers mentioned the Native American baskets they found. The Choctaw baskets were among the most-often described.  

 

English naturalist Mark Catesby in 1743 commented on Choctaw baskets in the second volume of his "Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands." 

 

He wrote: "The baskets made by the more southern Indians, particularly the Choctaugas and Chigasaws, are exceeding neat and strong, and is one of their masterpieces in mechanicks. These are made of cane in different forms and sizes ..." 

 

The baskets were of all sizes and shapes, made for every use imaginable. Because of their strength, function and beauty, they also became popular with the Euro-American settlers in Mississippi and Alabama.  

 

The cane for the baskets was cut in the swamps or along creeks. It was then split, soaked in water to make it pliable, and dyed yellow, red or black. The yellow dye was produced by pounding, and then boiling in water, the roots of the yellow dock. Black (or dark brown) dye was made from the bark of the black walnut tree. Red was made from the bark of the wild peach or red oak tree.  

 

Choctaw women wove the cane into either a single or double-weave basket. 

 

The base color was yellowish, with the slick exterior of the cane strips showing on the basket's exterior. Designs were created by using the darker colors with the rough interior of the cane strips showing on the exterior of the basket. The reason for the different cane usage was said to be that the rough texture of the cane's interior showed and retained the color of the darker dye better.  

 

Though Choctaws still make and sell baskets, the modern dyes that are often used just don't have the mellow beauty of the old, natural dyes. 

 

After all this, you are probably wondering what this has to do with the survival of Choctaw traditions in the more recent past of the Golden Triangle?  

 

John Bailey Hardy Sr. once told me that until World War I, he recalled groups of Choctaws periodically coming to his family's farm and asking permission to temporarily camp. While there, the men hunted and helped with work on the farm. He recalled how they all wore brightly colored clothes. The women made baskets from split cane and traded them for chickens they could cook.  

 

Hardy said he did not remember seeing Choctaws pass through after World War I. His farm was in southern Lowndes County northeast of Brooksville. 

 

Years ago, in the attic of my great aunt's house in Columbus, I found an old Choctaw basket. It was not a tourist-trade basket but a well-made, reinforced work basket. It had probably been traded by a Choctaw for some item on the family farm around 1900. I also recall seeing another old Choctaw basket in an old house in West Point. It, too, was a well-made basket that was functional, not decorative, and had been in that family for several generations. 

 

Sometimes in local antique shops you can run across Choctaw baskets. Once you have seen both new ones made for decorative use and the old ones made for heavy use, it is relatively easy to tell the difference. 

 

Sometimes, on the old baskets, the four corners of the bottom are worn or rotted off. Several years ago, an anthropologist told me that such rotten or damaged corners usually are a result of either heavy use or long exposure on a dirt floor. 

 

Family groups of Choctaws continued to travel about the Golden Triangle area setting up temporary camps, hunting or working on farms and trading baskets until about 1917.  

 

The story of Choctaws living here into the 20th century, in a mostly traditional lifestyle, is told by the baskets they made and traded to area families.

 

Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at rufushistory@aol.com.

 

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